Challenge, issue 86, January 2007
PREJUDICE BURNS UNSEEN
until ot comes to the boilby Athalie Crawford
There are no shortcuts to overcoming racial prejudice. Prejudice is a remarkably stubborn and resilient thing: it may go underground when it’s not safe to speak it aloud, but it burns on unseen, until something happens and it bubbles to the surface and boils over - and everyone is shocked and dismayed.
The Ned Doman School killing, in early 2005, in Cape Town, was one of these moments. It was a moment which prompted the Quaker Peace Centre to embark on a Celebrating Diversity Project in schools.
President Thabo Mbeki stated baldly, in August 2006, that the Western Cape is the most racially divided province in the country. Does this come as a surprise to anyone? Looking back to the hectic days of political organisation against apartheid by the United Democratic Front in the 1980s, I remember having misgivings about shortcuts: I was an organiser for a union at that time, and in our union we felt that the UDF policy of calling everybody who wasn’t white, black, was simply papering over the real historical differences, fears and resentments between blacks and coloureds. In so doing, it was making it impossible for people to raise these problems without appearing to be racist.
The union, which had both black and coloured members in defiance of apartheid labour policies, could not afford to sweep these fears and problems under the carpet. We knew unity between our black and coloured members was only achieved by slow, steady, patient organising which took into account the differences in their history and political understanding.
The reason we knew this was essentially practical: if a union didn’t have real support it showed immediately - from people not paying their subscriptions through to not supporting industrial action. There was no point in our making grandiose ideological gestures. This critique was borne out in 1994 when the coloured community in the Western Cape overwhelmingly voted for their old oppressors, the Nationalist Party.
And so in 2006, twelve years after democracy, if we are still reaping the bitter harvest of apartheid, is it because we have been too complacent about being the rainbow nation? Or are we still too scared to raise issues of racial prejudice for fear of seeming racist?
Since August 2005, the Quaker Peace Centre’s Diversity Project has been involved with one of the primary schools in Delft, whose learners and educators are both black and coloured.
Delft is a windswept township to the east of the Cape Town International Airport, which was initially established as a coloured area. It became a Reconstruction and Development Programme area after the advent of democracy, with the result that black people, mainly from the impoverished Eastern Cape, began to move to Delft with the promise of houses and jobs. Black and coloured families live next door to one another in small identical houses in the long treeless streets, but there is little social integration, and no shared understanding of how they all came to live together in Delft.
The majority of households are living in poverty, and the area is plagued by crime of all kinds. Domestic violence, child abuse, overcrowding, drug abuse and gangsterism are rife. Communal recreational facilities are almost non-existent. It is a bleak environment, and represents a serious challenge within which to build a culture that celebrates diversity, but a challenge that the Quaker Peace Centre is nevertheless striving to take up.
At the school, although there is a policy of gradual transition to English as a medium of instruction, the Xhosa and Afrikaans-speaking children are divided into classes along language lines, which teachers see as a practical necessity. However, from the focus groups that we conducted with them initially, it was clear that the group of 30 Grade 6 children, aged from 10 to 13 years, perceived it as a racial division, and that racial barriers were high. (One child commented laconically, “Abanye basibiz’ookaferi,” - Some call us kaffirs.)
Apart from one suburb, Voorbrug, which the children saw as “posher” than the other suburbs, possibly because it is the longest established area, the area is uniformly poor. (Another matter-of-fact comment from another child: “Almal is arm.” – We are all poor.) They told us that the black gangs prey on the coloured households and the coloured gangs prey on the black households. Everyone was a victim of the vicious spiral of unemployment, poverty, crime and prejudice.
We also held focus groups with the teachers, and discovered that though there appeared to be almost no social mixing between black and coloured teachers at school or in the community, only one teacher was prepared to assert that there was racial prejudice at school. All the black teachers at that stage were on contract, which may well have contributed to their not feeling free to criticise arrangements or decisions made by the school authorities. They pointed out that contract workers did not enjoy benefits such as medical aid and housing subsidies.
Unsurprisingly, Delft was not seen as a desirable place to live. One of the coloured teachers expressed his surprise that some of his colleagues were “still living in Delft” – the implication being that anyone with the means to do so would leave the area forthwith.
We then embarked on a series of parallel weekly workshops for a group of 30 grade 6 learners, and a group of 15 teachers, beginning in September 2005.
With the children, we started by assigning each Xhosa-speaking child to an Afrikaans-speaking partner, and these pairs were maintained for the duration of the workshops. Initially, there was some considerable resistance to this, but as time went on the pairs mostly seemed to warm to each other. In each session, the children would decide what new word they wanted to learn in their partner’s language, and each would teach the other the desired word and write it in their partners’ diversity notebook. We got them to interview one another, to role play and to learn songs in the other’s language.
We did group exercises involving discussion of images of different cultural groups in South Africa, and at another time, an exercise involving discussion of images of different cultural groups worldwide. One of the things we learned from these discussions was that the children unhesitatingly equated happiness with wealth. When asked why they thought someone (one of the images) was happy, they would say, “…because she’s got beautiful clothes…because he’s got lots of money…”
In one cheerful outside session playing team games with soccer balls, and a tug-of-war with an outsize rope, the harsh realities of life in Delft intervened: the session was disrupted by a group of children watching from outside the fence. They started throwing stones and “penny bangs” at the children inside the fence. When we went over to the fence to remonstrate, it was clear that some of the children were high on some or other substance, and were quite inaccessible. One very small boy amongst them, though, said, “Maar ons wil ook speel!” – But we also want to play!
In the last session with the children at the end of 2005, they painted pictures for a Human Rights Day exhibition, which was to be held at the school on 10 December. It was clear from the paintings that these children saw human rights as their being able to enjoy the good life as portrayed on television – enjoyed by only a fraction of South Africans, and certainly by no one in Delft.
One especially poignant painting featured a smiling mother and father, each diligently watering a flowering plant in the garden of a palatial house, outside of whose gates stood an enormous shiny car.
From the enthusiasm displayed in all our workshops, it seemed to us that any intervention which gave the children some positive attention, and provided even a small glimpse of a wider world outside of the crime and poverty of Delft, was beneficial. However, it was also clear that the real problem wasn’t with the children but with the adults - teachers and parents, from whom they naturally took their cue. Thus we resolved that our efforts for the following year should be concentrated on the teachers, and then extended to parents as well.
With the weekly workshops we held with the teachers in 2005, our basic approach was to get them to interact, to learn about themselves and their colleagues, and to uncover and come to terms with the attitudes about other cultural groups that every person growing up in South Africa inherits to a greater or lesser extent, including ourselves as facilitators. The idea being that you cannot do something about an attitude that is not admitted, and that it is within our power to hold up outworn beliefs and attitudes to the light of consciousness, and choose to modify or reject them. Two of the basic Quaker values are very pertinent here: that there is that of God in everyone, and that we all have the ability to change.
Accordingly, one of the workshops we devised was exploring the myths and stories about other communities that we had all grown up with, so that they could be seen and accepted, divested of the power that comes from fear of disclosure. We were aware that this subject matter was very close to the bone for the level of trust in the group, as the teachers initially strove to maintain that their childhoods had not been imbued with feelings and attitudes about other groups at all.
However, as it went on, even those who had denied having any significant memories of this kind, came up with many experiences. One coloured teacher admitted, for example, that he had feared black people as a child, because his parents would say that if he was naughty, the blacks would catch him and hurt him. Though this workshop started slowly, with initial nervousness and denial, for fear of being thought racist or offensive, they all warmed to the theme eventually, and one teacher commented at the end that her heart felt lighter; she felt freer.
We were aware by the end of 2005, however, that we had merely scratched the surface of the racial tensions at the school, and that it would take a sustained effort in 2006. In their end of year evaluations of the workshops, the teachers emphasized that they needed a more intense, extended time to get to know one another and work through issues together. We then planned to hold a residential weekend for the whole staff, outside of the constricting atmosphere of Delft, in early 2006.
Meanwhile, the school had moved to occupy a new campus where for the first time the Foundation and Intermediate phases were together. This radically redefined the racial power balance: in the old school there had been a majority of coloured teachers and all the black teachers had been on contract. In the new much bigger school, black teachers were in the majority. However with the move, a number of teaching posts had become redundant as a result of the numbers of children in particular classes changing. The resultant shifting of teachers to other schools to avoid retrenchments rapidly became a hot racial issue – in the way that problems of scarce resources routinely become in the Western Cape.
In the beginning of this article, I mentioned that differences in history and political tradition between black and coloured communities, which were not acknowledged or explored, are a potent source of misunderstanding and division. This has a bearing on how our school operates as well: many of the teachers at the new school had come to Delft from Eastern Cape, and some, upon their arrival, had become members of a subcommittee of unemployed teachers under the auspices of the South African National Civics Organisation (SANCO), whose members are seemingly almost exclusively black in Delft.
This subcommittee saw it as the unquestionable right of teachers who lived in Delft to have first option on jobs in local schools. The view of the Education Department, however, is that the best candidates for the job will be employed, whether they happen to live in Delft or not. This has meant that some teachers who commuted from Cape Town were made permanent, and some black teachers on contract complained bitterly about injustice and racial discrimination. The principal of the school is coloured. Each time permanent teaching posts are advertised, the racial temperature at the school rises.
Two incidents illustrate the kind of problem I am discussing: one occurred the night before a workshop on genocide offered by the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, which we had organised for our teachers to attend. When they climbed out of the bus, it was immediately apparent to me that something was wrong.
As the workshop went on, I saw how tense they were, watchful of one another, and fearful of saying anything which might be repeated against them in the “other camp”. What had apparently happened was that a parents and teachers’ meeting had been disrupted by militants from SANCO, who had demanded that the coloured Principal resign to make room for a more representative (black), Principal. It was not clear to what extent this demand was supported within the staff, but racial polarisation was evident at the workshop.
The second incident occurred, coincidentally, the night before we held the planned residential weekend workshop (April 2006) for the teachers to confront and resolve these problems. The occasion was a memorial service for one of the teachers, who had died unexpectedly after a brief illness. She had been one of the teachers on contract, and one of those who had attended our workshops in 2005.
At the service, which was attended by all the staff, a teacher from another school, reputedly a SANCO member, had addressed the gathering in Xhosa. The Principal, who understood enough Xhosa to know that she was being talked about, demanded that the speech be translated so that everyone could follow it. The teacher refused to translate. Afterwards the Principal was informed that she had been cited as a principal cause of the stress that had led to our teacher becoming ill and dying, as she had not been made permanent. This, unsurprisingly, again polarised not only the staff, but the school community, the parents, who were divided into pro and anti-Principal factions.
At the weekend itself, all the teachers expressed the fervent wish to overcome these divisions and learn to trust each other, but as one of the facilitators said, “Peace is hard work,” and for a while after the workshop, it seemed that some of the frank talking might even have given rise to further distress, particularly for the Principal, who already felt under attack. However, to her great credit, she was prepared to go with the process, and we pressed on to address one of the major themes that had emerged at the weekend: the need to understand one another’s languages and cultures. We at the QPC saw this as the most fundamental way to address problems of diversity at the school.
Being myself an English-speaker who learned to speak Xhosa as an adult, while working for a trade union in the late seventies and eighties, I know what a fundamental difference it makes to working relationships. The issue of language was central in the union also, and our policy in the Western Cape was that everything said in every meeting had to be expressed in both Afrikaans and Xhosa. Translation was a right, not a privilege, and it gave substance to the slogans of worker unity.
Later, working for a language rights NGO, I observed that the commitment and effort put into learning the other’s language counts as much as the language learning itself, in the transformation of attitudes. I also know that unless it is taken very seriously and even made compulsory, our lazy brains will not put in the effort required.
It is common cause that many English and Afrikaans-speaking children who have undergone Xhosa classes at school, have singularly failed to acquire the language. I strongly suspect that apart from questions of teaching methods, this failure is due to the children perceiving rightly, in spite of what might be said to the contrary, that these language classes are not really serious. English is still seen as the only really important language, even by native Xhosa speakers.
We have secured the enthusiastic support of the Chief Language Practitioner in the Western Cape in planning a “Celebrating Language Diversity in Delft” open day at the school, to which parents will also be invited. He is also assisting us to set up compulsory second language classes for teachers at the school, to be held once weekly in the staff development period.
We have decided to begin with Xhosa, and the classes are compulsory for the Xhosa speakers as well, so that they can be paired with Afrikaans speakers to assist and mentor them throughout the process – taking a leaf from our workshops with the children, where the pairing was crucial to developing trust.
We are helping the teachers to plan and structure the classes on a weekly basis, and these planning sessions are also used to assist the teachers with practising the feedback and self assertion skills introduced in the residential weekend, and to help introduce topics relevant to diversity in the classes.
We are monitoring, documenting and evaluating the effect of these classes on overcoming racial barriers, which will continue until the end of the third term. The same procedure, with the mentoring and support system will then be put to teaching Afrikaans.
This is not a short term solution, but there is no quick fix for overcoming racial prejudice. Everything we have learned in this past year confirms that relationship is the key to transformation: building relationship, maintaining relationship, through the bad patches as well as the good ones, is the only strategy with a hope of working. There have been many challenging moments in the process with this school where I thought it would all end in tears, but somehow we are all managing to stay the course. Teachers who are under enormous pressure, don’t always, or can’t always, prioritise the work of transformation, but although progress is uneven, it is undoubtedly happening. We need courage to confront our own darkness, and the perseverance to see it through - and thankfully, there is no shortage of that in our school.
For information on any of our projects please contact Martin Struthmann at the Quaker Peace Centre on (021) 685 7800, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.quaker.org/capetown
Athalie Crawford is a Project Leader at the Quaker Peace Centre.